The Suspicious Phone Call
Jay and Julie Jordan would have been hard pressed to remember a time when anything could have gotten both of their eldest children to instantaneously stop yelling at each other in the middle of a heated argument. But neither parent had ever tried disappearing into thin air.
Time had not actually stopped, but it might as well have for Zach and Binny. Their sister had been there one moment, and was gone the next. What had just happened? What had they just seen? WHERE WAS CASSIE?
It happened so quickly. Zach was just about to launch into a bout of nervous upset laughter and Binny was on the verge of a fresh round of tears, both thinking their sister was gone forever. But at the last possible moment, before her siblings could do anything, Cassie reappeared.
First there was a fuzzy, partly transparent image of a little girl, then shiny white tendrils reappearing, this time shrinking back into her, reversing their previous paths. Then all of a sudden Cassie was there – peering tenuously over the hands she had up to her face as if to gauge her siblings’ reaction.
Zach and Binny’s faces seemed to indicate sheer terror. Their expressions scared Cassie. Badly. She crumpled, sobbing, curled in a ball on the sidewalk.
Binny was the first to reach out. “Cassie, it’s okay.” Binny crouched down and took her shaking sister in her arms.
Zach followed quickly. “Don’t worry, it’s all right.” he repeated, trying to soothe Cassie and probably himself a little as well.
As Cassie started to catch her breath, Zach, who was still crouching, looked at Cassie earnestly and asked the question that was darting around in his mind, “Where did you go?”
Cassie’s eyes got wide for a moment. Then she broke into a toothy grin and laughed, still wiping the tears from her cheeks. “Huh? Nowhere!” Cassie looked at Binny trying to indicate that their brother might be a little crazy.
Binny smiled at her sister sweetly but with a note of concern. “You… you,” Binny didn’t quite know how to phrase this next sentence, “You were gone for a few seconds. And then you were back.”
Cassie’s smile started to fade a little. “No. I was here the whole time since the man was here with his dog until now. I didn’t go anywhere.” Cassie now sounded less scared but more annoyed.
Zach motioned to Binny to let him try again. Binny was annoyed at Zach for waving her off but acquiesced. “We were standing right here,” said Zach, “and all of a sudden we couldn’t see you. And then after a little while, there was this glow and ‘poof’,” Zach smiled as he said “poof” to try and help Cassie relax, “we could see you again.” Did you realize we couldn’t see you?”
“I was hiding.” Cassie responded plainly. “Sometimes I hide.”
“When you don’t want people to see you.” Zach finished Cassie’s thought for her. “Can you do it again?”
“Zach!” Binny almost yelled.
“What?” Zach said.
“Are you kidding?”
“What? It’s a perfectly reasonable question.”
Binny paused for a moment and turned to Cassie. “Well, can you? Do it again I mean?”
Cassie took her siblings’ interest as an indication that maybe it was okay after all. She responded in a small voice. “I don’t know.”
“It’s not magic. There’s no such thing as magic.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know. A power maybe.”
Binny and Zach had shuttled Cassie out of public view and onto their front porch, which was mostly shielded from the street. They argued back and forth while Cassie practiced her jumps: up and down on the steps of the porch.
“A power? A power? What does that even mean? Wouldn’t that be the same as magic?” Cassie demanded of Zach.
“I don’t know. I’m thinking.”
“We should tell Mom and Dad right now.” Binny asserted.
“Cassie, could you hide again? Just for a second?” Zach ignored Binny’s attempt to end the discussion.
“Don’t ask her to hide again. You don’t know where she went or what it might do to her.” Binny moved towards Cassie.
“You heard her. She didn’t ‘go’ anywhere.” “We just couldn’t see her.” He turned to Cassie. “You were just hiding, right?”
“Yes.” Cassie really wanted to please Zach.
“No.” Binny moved in front of Cassie to face her brother.
“It’s okay. I’ll do it, I’m really good at it.” Cassie offered.
“You don’t know what will happen!” warned Binny.
“Do it Cassie.” Zach instructed gently.
Cassie balled her fists and squinched her face up tightly. Her eyes were closed. She stayed like that for a few seconds. No glowing ivy. No going out of focus. No poof. “Good?” Cassie asked.
Zach said, “Nothing happened.”
“But I hid.” Cassie complained.
“We could still see you.” Binny added, her desire to tell their parents momentarily set aside.
Cassie scrunched again. And again. And again. And each time she and her blonde curls remained distinctly visible.
“Maybe that’s the first time it happened?” Binny asked herself more than anyone in particular.
“No. It’s not.” Cassie replied with uncharacteristic authority.
“Huh?” “How do you know?” Binny and Zach asked her.
“Makeup massacre?” Zach asked.
“That’s what I’m getting for my birthday.” Cassie responded confidently.
“What is a ‘makeup massacre’?” Zach asked.
“It’s a video game where lipsticks and other makeup characters battle each other to paint a girl’s face.” Binny answered impatiently and then turned to Cassie. “What does Makeup Massacre have to do with your ‘hiding’?”
“I snuck into their room and saw it in the present drawer in Mommy’s dresser. It’s my birthday present.”
“You looked in the present drawer?” Binny was scandalized.
“Yes.” Cassie was beaming, proud of her accomplishment.
Zach interrupted, a note of impatience in his voice, “And what does Makeup Massacre have to do with you turning invisible?”
“I was sneaking into their room to look in the drawer. But while I was looking, Mommy and Daddy came in, so I hid, and they didn’t see me the whole time they talked about the apartment.”
“The apartment?” Binny interjected.
Zach didn’t seem to notice. “There’s no place to hide near their dresser. She must have been invisible. She must have.”
“What apartment? Did they say we were moving?” Binny sounded extremely worried.
“How long were you there for after they came in?” Zach was now quizzing Cassie on the details of the incident, his mind calculating the possibilities and dimensions of what had happened.
“They were talking for awhile. Talking about the apartment, and when Mommy was going to move into it.”
“Mom is moving into an apartment?” Binny was more confused and nervous about this news than she was about Cassie’s apparent invisibility.
“And they didn’t see you the entire time? Did you leave the room or did they?” Zach again ignored Binny.
“They left after awhile and then I snuck out.” Cassie responded.
Binny shoved Zach in the shoulder to get his attention. She was on the verge of tears. “Did she say Mom was moving into an apartment? Just Mom? Without us?”
“Ow.” Zach turned to Binny and after a moment of indignation he shook his head subtly to indicate that Cassie was obviously confused and had garbled their parents’ conversation.
“I’m bored. Can I go inside and play now?” Cassie inserted herself between her siblings wordless communication.
Binny looked over her shoulder until Cassie was safely inside. “What did she mean about Mom moving into an apartment?”
“She’s seven. She has no clue what she heard. Relax.”
“Are you sure?” It was a rare moment that Binny would look to her older for brother for reassurance.
“Yes. I’m sure.” Zach responded. Binny didn’t seem quite convinced that Zach was telling the truth, but he continued without giving her an opportunity to pursue the subject. “Cassie can turn herself invisible.”
Zach and Binny just stared for a moment, contemplating the weight of Zach’s statement.
“Why couldn’t she do it when you asked her?” Binny wondered.
“What happened yesterday with your mirror?” Zach asked.
“Can you answer my question without asking me a question?” Binny sounded irritated.
“I’m trying to. Just tell me what happened yesterday.” Zach tried to get Binny back on track.
“Fine. She snuck into my room without me seeing her, and then she took it outside. And when I went to look for her all I found was my mirror sitting on the sidewalk.”
“She snuck into your room without you seeing her.” Zach repeated Binny’s words, letting his emphasis sink in. “And where was she when you found the mirror on the sidewalk?”
“How should I know? I never saw her.” Binny paused. “Wait, I really never saw her?” Binny realized the implications of her own words.
“Where wasn’t she when you went to look for your mirror?” Zach was in full detective mode now.
“She wasn’t in the house, but she wasn’t outside either. But that doesn’t mean she…”
“No.” Zach interrupted. “It’s not proof that she was invisible, but she’s not usually quiet, is she? You would have likely noticed her in the house or somewhere outside if she hadn’t been ‘hiding’.”
“Maybe.” Binny wasn’t quite ready to concede, but she also knew what she’d seen just a few minutes earlier. Of that there was zero doubt in her mind.
“OK. When Dad called us for dinner last night. Where were you?”
“I was outside getting my mirror. And then I came in.”
“Where was Cassie?” Zach continued.
“I didn’t see exactly. She came in after me. But she came in from outside I think. Maybe she’d gone further than she was supposed to. Like today.”
A cloud seemed to cross Zach’s brow as he thought about Binny’s last statement.
Binny continued, “You think she was standing right there when I took my mirror back? Invisible?”
“A secret. That man was asking her about a secret.” Zach seemed to have moved on already.
“What secret?” Binny sounded stressed.
“The man with the dog was asking Cassie about a secret. All I heard was him say the word ‘secret’ when I got there.”
“I don’t like him.”
“Neither do I.” Zach added shaking his head. “And there’s something else.”
Zach paused for a moment. “He knew my name.”
“That’s it,” Binny started standing up. “We’re going to tell Mom and Dad.”
“Wait. Wait. What are we going to tell them? That Cassie has a super power that she uses to sneak around the house stealing your stuff and finding out what her birthday present is going to be?”
“We’re going to tell them,” Binny was raising her voice now, stressed and scared, “that there is a man in the neighborhood who has seen Cassie go poof and wants to kidnap her so he can find out the secret to how she does it!”
Zach was all set to dismiss Binny’s statement, but the logic of her argument caught him by surprise. “But…” Zach wasn’t sure how to continue the sentence.
“But nothing. That man is from the government. And Cassie is like E.T. He’s gonna cut her up. For science. I heard Dad say so.”
Zach finally composed himself. “You’re being ridiculous. You heard Dad say that the man is going to cut up Cassie?”
“No, idiot. I heard Dad explain why the man from the government was going to cut up E.T. in the movie and this is no different.” Binny’s hands were back on her hips.
“How do you know he’s from the government?” Zach looked incredulous.
“How did he know your name?”
Again Zach was caught off guard by his sister’s logic. He meekly added, “Well, that doesn’t mean he’s from the government. It just means he has access to information. Information that’s usually not publicly available.” Zach realized that his own explanation wasn’t a really great argument for the man not being from some shadowy government agency.
“I’m telling Mom and Dad right now.” Binny turned on her heel.
Zach jumped after her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“WHAT?” Binny demanded impatiently.
“Look. I just think Mom and Dad are very busy.” Zach tried being conciliatory.
“So what. They’re always busy.”
“I’m just saying, Cassie’s safe inside the house having her bath. The man is gone. Let’s try and figure things out ourselves a little more before we tell them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m saying, why don’t you and I do a little detective work. The two of us.” Zach suggested with a smile.
“The two of us? You want to do something with me? Do you have a fever?” Binny was being sarcastic now, but she couldn’t help but feel flattered at the interest from her brother.
“Yeah. The two of us. We just need to gather some intelligence.” Zach’s hand was back to stroking his chin.
“Are you a spy now?” Binny laughed, relaxing a little.
“Yeah. Let’s be spies. If only we knew where to find the man.”
“I do.” Binny said proudly but with a little bit of smug satisfaction at knowing something her brother didn’t. “I know where he lives.”
Some of the houses in Madrona are situated so their backyards are on alleys. Their front doors faced the street like you would expect, but garages and garbage pickup were in the alley in back. The back of the man’s house, the house where Binny had heard the man’s dog barking, was on just such an alley.
Zach and Binny walked quietly for a bit, still recovering from all the news they’d just absorbed. Binny finally interrupted the silence, “Have you met the girl who just moved in across the street? Penny is her name I think.”
“I’ve seen her a couple of times. But I haven’t talked to her.”
“She seems like a know-it-all.”
“Uh huh.” Zach thought better of reminding Binny that she herself had a knack for lecturing.
After a long pause Binny added, “Have you seen a dad around? I’ve only noticed a mom.”
Zach wasn’t sure he knew what Binny’s point was, so he kept his answers short. “I don’t think so. No.”
And then to no one in particular, Binny added, “I wonder if Penny’s father lives in an apartment.”
From their vantage point crouching behind the low slung fence at the back of the man’s property, Binny and Zach had a pretty good view of the man’s backyard with its carefully manicured grass. They could also see into his living room, which opened up onto a deck through two big glass doors. The deck wrapped around the house to the right and continued beyond their view.
“There’s the dog.” Binny whispered to Zach. “See. Through the glass.” The man’s dog was curled up in a dog bed on the stone gray tiled floor of the living room.
Zach was a little nervous about the dog but didn’t say anything.
There was no sign of the man.
Neither of the kids was sure of what they were waiting for, but waiting felt at least like doing something so they kept it up.
“I know this is ridiculous, but I have to ask.”
“OK.” Zach’s interest was piqued.
“You know how Dad is always joking about being a superhero.”
“Yeah.” Zach let a little of his skepticism at what Binny was about to say creep into his voice.
Binny ignored it. “I mean, I know he’s just kidding, but. Well. Cassie has a power.” Binny paused and her eyes got wider. “Cassie’s got a super power. You don’t think Dad’s telling the truth do you?”
Binny cut off his laughter, “I know. I don’t believe it either.”
“It’s okay. I’m not laughing at you.” The events of the afternoon had made Zach a little more charitable towards Binny. “It’s just that, Cassie can’t control her ‘power’. You saw. She couldn’t do it when she wanted to. So it’s essentially useless.”
“She used it well enough to steal my mirror and see her birthday present.” Cassie responded.
This was the third time that afternoon that Binny surprised him with her solid reasoning. Maybe he hadn’t been giving his eldest sister enough credit. Rather than make him feel competitive, it made him feel just a little bit closer to her. “You’re right. That she did.”
“Sam, I am just asking you what I am supposed to be looking for.” The man’s voice sailed over from the far side of the house. Binny and Zach immediately shrunk down behind the fence. When they dared to raise their eyeballs just over the fence, they could see the man had come out on the deck from the side of the house. There must be a room on the side that opened up onto the wraparound deck. The man was pacing back and forth. He looked agitated.
“I am sorry. I am not trying to be difficult. I am just trying to do what you are asking. Though frankly it makes me uncomfortable.”
Binny and Zach exchanged wordless glances with each other.
More fragments floated over the yard from the man’s conversation. Things like, “Yes, I have kept my eyes open.” “Under what pretext?”, and “I think that would be an overreaction, and would scare the parents.”
Binny’s head started to spin. Kept his eyes open for what exactly? What would be an overreaction? Scare the parents?
“Very well. I will come up with something. Just please give me more time. You do not think there is any danger, do you?” The man continued. And then the man responded to a question the kids couldn’t hear. “No, I was just walking my dog.”
“He’s talking about Cassie. I knew it! They think she’s dangerous. And he was spying on her while he was walking his dog. We need to go warn Mom and Dad right now before he has a chance to do anything.” Binny was incredibly agitated but still whispering. She grabbed Zach’s arm hard, so that he was caught a little off balance and had to steady himself on the garbage can to his side. It clattered loudly. The kids immediately crouched down behind the wall, trying to stay hidden.
“The raccoons have gotten into the garbage cans again. I have to go get rid of them. We can talk more tomorrow.” The man was trying to end the phone call. “Yes, I am aware of my responsibilities.” There was a pause. “Tomorrow then.” The kids heard the agitation in his voice as the phone call ended. Then they heard his footsteps on the deck as he headed towards the very garbage cans next to which they were crouched.
“Let’s run.” Binny pleaded in a scared whisper to her brother. Binny’s heart was beating fast at the thought of getting in trouble for snooping.
“No. He’ll see us. Stay put for a second.” Zach whispered.
“Can you turn invisible too? Cause that would be pretty useful right about now.” Binny responded.
“No.” Zach smiled briefly, but his fear of their impending discovery returned to his face quickly. “Just hold on a second. If we run, we look guilty.”
Binny marveled at her brother’s logic. She hadn’t realized how adept he was at staying out of trouble and wondered what he’d gotten away with as a result of these skills.
The man got closer and closer to where Zach and Binny were hiding. And suddenly, there was a “ruvh ruvh” from the house. “Yes yes, Rembrandt,” the man said. “The raccoons are in the cans again. Can I deal with them first?” The man approached the gate to the alley.
The man’s dog started barking more insistently now. “You are going to annoy the neighbors again, Rembrandt. Stop barking.” Rembrandt didn’t appear to care what the neighbors thought.
And just as the man put his hand on the gate to open it, the dog started barking yet again. This time, even louder. “Fine! Fine! Everyone is ordering me around today.” The man lamented to himself.
Instead of walking into the alley to perform an inspection, he just shook the cans by reaching his hand over the fence. When there was no response from inside, he seemed satisfied that the raccoons had retreated and he turned back to the house to attend to his dog.
Zach and Binny waited, barely breathing as they heard the man’s steps on the deck and the screen door open and then close. After waiting another moment, the dog’s barking also stopped. Zach motioned to Binny to follow and they scuttled down the alley in crouched positions. Only once they were a fair distance from the man’s house, did they feel safe enough to stand up.
Once they were in the clear, Binny pounced on Zach, determined. “Did you hear what he said? He was talking to his boss in the government. They think Cassie’s power is dangerous. They’re going to take her away!”
“Wait a minute Binny. I know it sounded bad, but there could be lots of explanations for what we just heard.”
“Name one.” Binny’s eyes were wide with certainty.
Whether it was the stress of almost getting caught, the scary barking of the big dog, or finding out his sister could turn herself invisible, Zach was stymied. He knew that given a couple of minutes he could come up with an alternate explanation. But even if there was one, wasn’t Binny’s explanation really the best explanation? It didn’t matter anyway. Zach could tell that Binny wasn’t about to give him more time to persuade her to pursue a different course.
“It’s time Zach.” Binny heard a new note of confidence in her own voice. But there was also a note of fear, and that was less comforting. “You may not be worried, but I am. Cassie’s in danger. I’m going to tell Mom and Dad what’s happening.”
“Mom and Dad have a lot on their plates right now. I just don’t think we need to bother them with this just yet.” Zach said.
“What could they possibly have on their plates that’s more important than this? Mom working late again? Dad drawing in his study? Or let me guess,” now Binny’s tone was harshly sarcastic, “they’re too busy fighting crime in their spandex superhero outfits?”
“Of course not.”
Binny continued, “They’re our parents. This is their job. Their daughter is in danger, and they should know, but you don’t seem to care enough to tell them.”
“Of course I care, I just…” Zach tried to explain.
“You just what? What?” Binny demanded.
Zach couldn’t find the words. Binny closed the discussion: “We need to tell Mom and Dad. I’m gonna do it with you or without you.”
Zach sighed and nodded just slightly to Binny in a gesture that Binny took as agreement. If Binny had continued looking at her brother instead of straight ahead, she would have seen that in fact, Zach’s face was creased with worry.
They finished the walk home in silence.